Mongolian shamanism is one of the purest forms of the world’s oldest spiritual belief system, but in modern Mongolia it is every bit as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. Lee Williams spoke to two shamans who bridge modern business with ancient ancestors.
“If we don’t find our true self, that’s an aspect of the universe that has gone unexpressed, and that’s such a pity.”
Inside the yurt the shaman begins to beat her drum. Soon she is dancing unsteadily to the rapid beat, her brightly-coloured costume of feathers, beads and trinkets rustling around her body, her face shielded by a black tasselled mask. After a while she half collapses to the ground, aided quickly by her assistant. She starts muttering in a strange tongue in a deep, rasping voice. The spirit of an ancestor has possessed her. The assembled people look on half in awe, half afraid, awaiting their advice from the spirit world.
This is not the kind of scene you would associate with the modern professional world, yet in Mongolia shamanism is thriving and is an integral part of many people’s personal and professional lives. In a country with a population of just three million, half of whom live in the capital Ulaanbaatar, it is estimated that around 30,000 are practising shamans. They do everything from healing, to negating bad luck, to offering advice on relationships and business transactions. Even advertisements on Mongolian TV feature shamans offering to unravel curses.
Yet, as the ceremonies suggest, this is just the modern face of a very ancient tradition. Shamanism is widely regarded as the world’s oldest religion, a belief system with a global heritage dating back tens of thousands of years. And Mongolian shamanism is a particularly pure form, the word ‘shaman’ itself coming from the region around Siberia and Mongolia.
“Shamanism anywhere is an animistic tradition,” says Nicholas Breeze Wood, editor of Sacred Hoop, a magazine about all things shamanic. “It acknowledges that everything is alive. It’s not just humans on a dead planet. The role of the shaman is to sort out communication between the humans and all the other aspects of creation. It kind of oils the wheels of reality, if you like.”
In this living cosmos, everything has a spirit including places, animals, plants and even the sky, which has 99 ruling spirits, or ‘Tenger’. Shamans communicate with these spirits, as well as those of their ancestors, by journeying into the spirit world, or by inviting them into their own bodies. “The spirits do the magic,” says Nicholas. “No spirits, no shaman.”
One such modern-day spirit channeller is a shaman living in Ulaanbaatar who goes by the name of Bluesky. Bluesky is a journalist, tour operator and the director of The Institute for the Study of Mongolian Shamanism. In the rare moments when she isn’t working, she manages to find time to contact 700-year-old ancestors who speak through her. “When I shamanise my husband helps me,” says Bluesky. “The spirits speak in ancient Mongolian so we need to have an assistant to talk to the spirits. I have nine spirits but three of them come always.”
Bluesky, like most practitioners, never intended to become a shaman, instead the role found her. She had been going through a bad time in her life, a stage often associated with becoming a shaman known as ‘shamanic illness’. Then one day she was meeting a man to buy a camera. The man told her he saw a white fox on her shoulder and thought she might need to become a shaman to overcome her problems. Bluesky was sceptical but three nights later she had a dream that convinced her the man was right. “I dreamt that hundreds and hundreds of horses came to me from the sky into my body and I couldn’t wake up. I thought during the dream, yes I need to become a shaman.”
Now Bluesky and her husband use the spirits to advise them on their business and professional decisions. Shamanism permeates every aspect of their lives. Only last week, she tells me, she was awaiting news of her Master’s application to Australia. The night before the email arrived she dreamt about the cost. “In my dream I was calculating exchanging Australian dollars into Mongolian money and next morning, when I saw the email, the amount was the same.”
Bluesky isn’t the only shaman with a thoroughly modern outlook. Perhaps no one exemplifies the bridge between the modern professional world and the ancient spiritual one better than Jacqueline Teoh. Jacqueline is a management consultant from Malaysia with Chinese-Mongolian ancestry. She is a former director at a Big Four consulting company in Switzerland and now lives in Singapore where she heads up the region’s business consulting practice for a Swiss firm. That’s when she’s not journeying into the spirit world or channelling ancestors who speak a little-known dialect from the far north of Mongolia.
Jacqueline studied various forms of shamanism around the world but she decided to return to her ancient homeland when she heard the voice of her deceased grandfather – a medium and shaman himself – telling her to go to Mongolia. There she met a female shaman from the Darhad region of northern Mongolia whom she had dreamt about the previous night. She was waiting to consult the shaman in a healing ceremony but to her surprise found herself at the centre of the ritual, being dressed up in the shaman’s clothes and given her drum.
“I just went with it,” says Jacqueline, “next thing I knew, an incredible burst of energy and heat rammed into my body through the base of my skull. I blacked out. I don’t remember a thing. Two and a half hours later my friends told me that in the trance state I was speaking ancient Darhad in a different voice – the voice of my shamanic ancestor, an old woman. She drank at least one litre of vodka. I am allergic to alcohol but I didn’t get any ill effects from it, nothing. That was it – my first experience with Mongolian shamanism. I didn’t have any choice really, it just happened.”
Now at her private practice Jacqueline channels her Mongolian spirit regularly, using her powers to guide herself and sometimes others in their business and personal lives. “I understand the corporate world so I get a lot of friends and clients who are also executives, asking to meet with their spirit guides and returning that wisdom and power either to heal themselves or to resolve a conflict between organisations or departments or colleagues. It’s very practical stuff.”
As you might expect, both Jacqueline and Bluesky believe that Mongolian shamanism is as relevant in an office today as it was in a yurt on the steppes 500 years ago, especially in its respect for the environment. “If we respect nature it will give us back something that we want,” says Bluesky. “Most people think if we work hard we can do everything without helping nature but I don’t think so. First we need to give, then we can get back.”
Although Jacqueline believes the path of the Mongolian shaman, with its full-body spirit possessions, is only for the few, she sees its lessons about connecting with nature as essential in today’s society. “Just 20 minutes each day, take the time to sit with nature,” she advises, “unplug all the electronics, feel the fundamental connection with the energy that surrounds us, that is in all living things, that allows us to thrive.”
She even sees aspects of shamanism as the way to self-realisation in all of us: “We’re here to live fully and to bring our gifts into the world – all of us have gifts. And if we don’t find our true self, that’s an aspect of the universe that has gone unexpressed, and that’s such a pity.”
PLEASE SHARE YOUR VIEWS AND EXPERIENCES IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW